Climate Change

Nuclear power or coal plants? Study weighs in on costs and benefits

Environmental costs from both power sources were also examined by the study

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 27 February 2020
Fuel costs for generating electricity through nuclear power would be lesser compared to coal Photo: LibreShot

The installation of nuclear power plants instead of coal-fired ones to generate electricity resulted in the reduction of two million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a new study.

Emissions of 5,200 metric tonnes sulphur dioxide and 2,200 metric tonnes nitrogen oxides would also be reduced, the Environmental News Network reported on February 26, 2020.

The study noted an average reduction of 200 GWh (gigawatt hours) in coal-fired generation with the installation of nuclear instead of coal plants.

Fuel costs for generating electricity through nuclear power would also be lesser compared to coal, according to the study. However, nuclear power would involve higher maintenance costs and non-fuel operations.

The study — conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the IZA Institute of Labor Economics — also examined environmental costs from both power sources. Burning coal would emit several global and local pollutants increasing climate and health risks, according to the study published in journal Resource and Energy Economics.

However, costs of disposing nuclear waste and potential nuclear accidents should also be taken into account if countries wanted to replace them with coal-fired plants.

“Policymakers should consider the benefit of nuclear power generation as a low-carbon source of electricity,” said Edson Severnini, the study's co-author.

Several incidents related to nuclear plants — including the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima accidents — had spurred many countries to switch to fossil fuels from nuclear energy, the study noted.

“Our study informs the ongoing policy debate about whether to subsidise existing nuclear power generation,” said Akshaya Jha, a co-author of the study.

Researchers also noted an increase in monthly coal-fired generation of approximately 200 GWh when nuclear power outages occurred.

The study accounted for unplanned outages from 1999 to 2014 in the US. It evaluated why the country’s electricity generation from nuclear sources declined, despite fossil fuels being one of the main sources of air pollution.

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